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Post  eddie Sun Jul 31, 2011 8:15 pm

Summer readings: The Magus by John Fowles

A perfect read for the Greek islands, suffused with the same silences and stark beauty

John Fowles The-Magus-007
Michael Caine in the film version of the Magus. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

John Fowles didn't regard The Magus as his greatest novel. The first he wrote but the second to be published (in 1966), it seemed to succeed in spite of its creator, who mused: "I have long learned to accept that the fiction that pleases me the least … persists in attracting a majority of my readers most."

John Fowles The-Magus-Vintage-Classics
The Magus (Vintage Classics) by John Fowles

For me, holiday-bound, in the late summer of 2004, the fat volume promised the perfect tribute to the islands I had cherished all my summers, from the age at which we can choose where we spend them. I fell in love in and with Greece when I was 19. The whisper of Athenian Greek still has much the same effect on me as does Russian on Jamie Lee Curtis …. They had our words first.

Written from the perspective of Nicholas Urfe, a young schoolteacher in the 1950s, the novel's fictional "Phraxos", based on the island of Spetses where Fowles taught in a boarding school in 1951 and 52, is different in character from my beloved Paros. I had swapped the "pine-forest silences" of the Saronic isles for the blue and whitewashed circle that is the Cyclades in general, Paros in particular. But I recognised the "uncanny" silences and the stark beauty.

It was not the generous Aegean spring but the burnt melancholic landscape of early September that drew me to Paros. "The Greece of the islands is Circe still; so beautiful, quiet and empty that it verged on the terrifying." That summer The Magus captured it.

The novel, originally entitled The Godgame, makes a game of what is real and what is artifice, of perception and of identity. I read its central chapters on Logaras beach from where the early evening view of Naxos, across the bay, carves almost too clear, distorting distance with light; a constant play of real and mirage.

As the narrative challenged and re-challenged, the sun-baked pages became a diary of occasions on which I had flicked back, attempting to impose a structure on the shifting sands of the story. Ambre Solaire and olive oil stains gave it translucent page corners. Sometimes I became irritated by it, Urfe's trials, the seemingly endless series of deceptions by Conchis, too much for languorous days ("Were they twins or was that last night's drinks?"). Slowly, I allowed myself simply to experience rather than to understand.

Despite the plot's demands I found in its whole a source of nostalgia for things I had not realised I was missing and a tribute to those still Aegean afternoons. Ultimately, I found the disconnectedness of return to London: "In England we live in a domesticated relationship with what remains of our natural landscape … in Greece landscape and light are … so all-present ... that the relationship is immediately … one of passion." Nicholas's return was my own, every time.

The novel ends indeterminately. Fowles resisted demands placed on him for a definitive interpretation. Six years on I am OK with that.
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Post  eddie Sun Apr 08, 2012 5:20 pm

Finding myself in John Fowles's library

Books on sale from his collection remind me, uncomfortably, of my own encounters with the irascible author of The French Lieutenant's Woman

Rick Gekoski

The Guardian

John Fowles John-Fowles-006
Bristling ... John Fowles. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Corbis Sygma

On my desk I have a fascinating rare books catalogue, issued jointly by Charles Cox and Maggs Brothers, which offers "Books from the library of the John Fowles". The author's heavily corrected copies of The Aristos, The Magus, and The French Lieutenant's Woman have already been purchased, alas but rightly, by the University of Texas, which holds the Fowles archive. But I was a little surprised to see, as item 385, a copy of Graham Greene's Victorian Detective Fiction, which contains "a note to JF from bookseller Rick Gekoski, referring to a meeting with Francis Greene, Graham's son. A note by JF explains that he had been asked to provide an introduction to a proposed new edition of this book." At £450 it was reasonably priced, though I didn't buy it.

I met John Fowles twice, at his beautiful Belmont House in Lyme Regis, first to buy a few books and manuscripts, and the second time to discuss the possibility that he might write an introduction to a re-issue of Greene's book, which had been published in 1966 in an edition of 500 copies, signed by the author, his girlfriend and amanuensis Dorothy Glover, and the compiler John Hayward.

Some time in 1989 I was approached by Greene's son Francis, to whom Graham had given the collection, who was interested in republishing the catalogue under my Sixth Chamber Press imprint, with his copious emendations, corrections, and additions. Francis – a scholarly, rather unworldly man – felt that the material was substantial and interesting enough to warrant a new edition. I demurred, feeling there would be a very limited market for such a book, but fond feeling for Graham Greene himself made me wonder whether there wasn't some way to make it work, perhaps if I could get someone of note to write the introduction, and sign all of the copies. Greene himself wasn't interested, nor was John le Carré. My third choice was John Fowles, who had the added advantage of living within a few miles of Francis Greene's house near Axminster. John, his wife Elizabeth and I were invited to lunch to discuss the project.

Over a pleasant meal, in foolish response to Mrs Greene's ardent enthusiasm for living in the midst of nature, I launched a mildly ironised attack on Wordsworth, and the folly of supposing one is improved by exposure to the natural world. Give me art and cities anytime, I said, rather than the numbing effects of too many fields, streams, and drooling rustics. It was an unpromising line of thought if you are trying to get John Fowles, an ardent student of the natural world, to do something for you. After lunch we repaired to the library, and John leafed through a few volumes with scant interest. "I simply have nothing to say about it," he said as soon as we left. I exchanged a few notes with him after that, but never saw him again.

Here I must admit to a shaming habit. When I am in a bookshop, I often find myself compelled to look myself up in indexes of recently published books. Buying rare books and selling archives from well-known literary people means (many such being diary-keepers and gossips) that thoughts will be thought, then noted, and sometimes transmitted in print.

I have this sad habit under a degree of control. I don't seek myself in the index to Wisden, the Guide to the Churches of East Anglia, or books on birdwatching. But when I see a book of memoirs, a Collected Letters, or a published journal by someone I know, I often have a look to see if I am in there. So when, sometime in 2005, I picked up the newly published Journals of John Fowles, Volume Two, I headed straight for the back pages. And there it was: "Gekoski, Rick, 381, 401-3."

The facts were there – the buying of a manuscript and the carting off of some foreign translations of Fowles's works, the lunch party and little spat about Wordsworth (which had clearly irked him as well as Mrs Greene). The diary entries about me are not wholly dismissive. It seems he liked me, and discerned something Hollywoodish in my character. But the incessant refrain was that I am "too Jewish for English tastes", partly, I suppose, because of my views about nature. Presumably he might have felt the same way about Dr Johnson.

This was paralysing, standing there in the bookshop. After a few hours I calmed down, but the experience left me a little bruised and a lot puzzled. Surely John Fowles, like TS Eliot, would have denied that he was an antisemite, and in some pedantic sense he might have been right. Hard line antisemites hate Jews generally, and Fowles was not manifesting a gross and universal hostility. He was not a member of Hamas. He was writing in his journals, as frankly as he could, under no obligation to be nice or proper, even about himself. He is self-doubting, painfully honest about his impotence and the constant discord with Elizabeth, and given to frequent barbed comments about Jews. What is surprising is that he should have chosen to publish them.

He was an odd creature, cloistered and bristling, mordantly amused, his ears pricked up and eyes wide open, like some furry inhabitant of the darkness. His library, or at least that (20th-century) remnant of it detailed in the catalogue, gives an interesting window into his inner life, though it is hard to say how much of it he actually chose. Many of the books were gifts, others sent to him by publicists or publishers, perhaps hoping for a puff. The range of the books is surprisingly random. Though there are runs of books by Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, and Ted Hughes, and smatterings by their contemporaries, Fowles's real enthusiasms were for earlier modern writers. He was a great admirer, for instance, of John Collier, and had a considerable run of Alain-Fournier titles, Le Grand Meaulnes being one of his favourite books, and a clear influence on both The Magus (the only book I have ever thrown out of a window) and The Ebony Tower.

Surprisingly few books are inscribed to him by other writers: none from Golding, whom he knew and admired, a few from Adam Thorpe and Christopher Priest, both of whose early works he championed, and the odd one here and there: Richard Adams, David Lodge, Rose Tremain. He seems not to have had many literary friendships, which was presumably, if not the cause at least the effect of living in Dorset. (Golding was also out of the loop, in Cornwall, and his library was similar to Fowles in this respect). But Fowles was an assiduous annotator, many of the books containing cryptic and amusing marginalia. Helen Fielding's first novel is called "almost unimaginably bad", while Kenneth Tynan's Diaries elicit the observation that "knowing everyone means in the end you know no one".

The catalogue helped me, too, to understand why he didn't want to write that Introduction for Francis Greene and me. There were almost no thrillers on his shelves. Le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy was there, but nothing of PD James or Ruth Rendell, much less Chandler or Hammett. In fact, there's very little American literature generally: one book each by Bellow, Mailer, Roth. No Salinger or Malamud. Too Jewish for English tastes?

But it isn't that simple. Fowles was an admirer of Mordecai Richler's St Urbain's Horseman when he was on the Booker prize jury in 1971, and hoped it would win. Presumably the right sort of Jewish? Or an exception to some sort of disposition, or indisposition?

Adam Mars-Jones, who has a reliable sense of when to keep his mouth open, was quite forthright, in his Observer review of Fowles's Journals, in his disgust at their antisemitism (and homophobia). Yet I'm still not sure how to frame the right response, and the whole business makes me uneasy. Not just because I am in some small way implicated in it, but because I am not disposed to attack another man's moral character unless there is a hint of evil in it. This may be weak of me, and my initial sense of bruised bemusement has returned as I write.
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